I’ve openly stated before that I don’t like Melissa McCarthy, but that statement needs revising: I don’t like Melissa McCarthy roles. She has great timing and her range is spectacular, but she consistently squanders her talents on stale variations of the same loud, schlubby character. Call it Jonah Hill syndrome.
Despite my distaste for her shtick so far, I’m confident that she is an untapped well of comedic talent, waiting for the right opportunity to surpass the scourge of typecasting that followed her breakout in “Bridesmaids.” Co-writing a film with her husband, Ben Falcone (who also directs), seems as likely an opportunity as she’ll ever get; unfortunately, that isn’t what “Tammy” offers.
The film opens with a characteristically unkempt McCarthy as Tammy, singing “Your Love” with a mouthful of half-chewed Doritos. After briefly trying to give a deer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, we see her entire life fall apart in rapid succession as she is fired from her job, her battered car dies in a plume of black smoke, and she walks home to find her husband eating an adulterous dinner with the neighbor (not a euphemism). What could have humanized the character and offered a sympathetic base for the audience to connect with is instead simply a framework for more her particular brand of brash, temper tantrum comedy.
Post-breakdown, Tammy decides to hightail it out of town. Leaving with her grandmother’s car also means leaving with her grandmother, Pearl, so Susan Sarandon takes her place in the passenger seat and they make for Niagara Falls. As with any road comedy, the destination is purely secondary, and their encounters along the way are meant to generate all the excitement. They don’t.
To try and pinpoint a single reason for the flop would excuse the mediocrity spread nearly across the board. The shining star of the movie is Sarandon, totally game as the devil-may-care alcoholic granny, even though she is blatantly too young for the part. Beyond the two leads, the cast splits the difference between underused or merely adequate (the exception being Falcone, but I’m a sucker for impotently over-serious straight men). The script plods along in its weirdly paced fashion, spitting out hackneyed jokes and setting up emotional conflicts that it can never successfully cash in on. A tepid romance subplot entangles McCarthy with Mark Duplass, but offers no chemistry between the actors. Falcone is noticeably wet behind the ears as a director; his shots are fairly bland and unadventurous, underselling some moments – like a car stuck in an impossible maze of trees – that had vast potential for visual comedy.
Early into their road trip, Tammy and Pearl share a scene in a bar where Tammy boasts that men are drawn to her “like flies on shit,” to which Pearl astutely replies, “You may want to start saying ‘like bees to honey.’” For me, that’s the perfect metaphor for McCarthy’s persona at this point. There are kernels of great pathos in her performances and somewhere out there is a movie that will allow her to drop the shield of crudeness, or at least use it in a more dramatically effective manner. “Tammy” isn’t that movie; even if McCarthy is more honey than shit by the end, that’s still only as much of a compliment as it sounds.
Although I don’t believe that it could have ever been a great film, most of the problems with “Tammy” come from the execution. McCarthy’s rising star isn’t the only byproduct of “Bridesmaids”; we’ve seen a great number of female-driven comedies in its wake. It’s a positive trend – a breath of fresh air in an industry (and genre) that has been dominated by males for so long – and, to the film’s credit, “Tammy” fits that bill. In fact, it may be the most significant inversion to date of the oft-discussed Bechdel test since, like Duplass, most of the male characters exist solely as the less interesting half of a romantic pairing. Perhaps the best hope for the film is for it to be another stepping stone in the path to a new comedic landscape, critical panning be damned.
2 July 2014
1 hr. 36 min.
Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Allison Janney, Mark Duplass, Toni Collette, Nat Faxon, Dan Aykroyd
Joe Swanberg also wrote a great piece about “Tammy” that echoes on some of my thoughts, even if he’s a bit more willing to give the film a pass. I particularly agree with him that Falcone and McCarthy have something brilliant and subversive hidden somewhere inside them.